Budget Bill Sells Off Strategic Oil Reserves To Pay For Coal Miners’ Health Care

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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A bill to fund the federal government through April would use money raised by selling off strategic oil reserves to pay for health care benefits for retired coal miners.

The House bill would sell off $375.4 million worth of oil from the Department of Energy’s Strategic Petroleum Reserve to, in part, fund a $45 million plan to pay the health care costs for about 12,500 retired coal miners that was set to expire at the end of this year.

“This legislation is just a band aid, but a critical one,” House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers, a Kentucky Republican, said in a statement.

“It will give the next Congress the time to complete the annual Appropriations process, and in the meantime, take care of immediate national funding needs,” Rogers said.

But the health care extension wasn’t good enough for coal country lawmakers. They wanted the continuing resolution to cover coal miners’ pension costs in addition to their health care plans.

“I’m disappointed that the full Miners Protection Act to address health and pensions benefits for our miners was not included in the continuing resolution that was released tonight,” West Virginia Republican Sen. Shelley Moore Capito said of the bill.

She was joined by West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin — a potential pick for President-elect Donald Trump’s cabinet — who is pushing legislation to guarantee health and pension plans for more than 120,000 retired coal miners.

The United Mine Workers’ pension fund is facing huge financial shortfalls as thousands of coal miners get laid off and major coal companies file for bankruptcy protection. There’s now just one coal miner supporting 13 retirees, and bankruptcies have allowed companies to cut their commitments to the pension fund.

If the miner’s pension fails, it would be backed by the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, but lawmakers worry even that may not be enough to pay out all the promised benefits.

“While the short-term, four-month patch will prevent our miners from losing their health care benefits in just a few weeks, we have more work to do,” Capito said. “I will continue fighting until a long-term solution is reached.”

Previous legislation committed up to $490 million to fund miners’ health and pension plans, but experts worried this could open the door to bailing out more than $600 billion in pensions promised to other unions.

“Pension bailouts would encourage employers, unions, and pension fund trustees to promise substantial pension benefits to their employees without setting aside the funds to pay for those benefits,” Rachel Greszler, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote in a report.

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